Since its formulation nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity has radically altered our understanding of the universe. While the theory has been tested and verified rigorously for decades, the presence of gravitational radiation or “gravitational waves,” remains undetected.
Emmanuel Fonseca, a 2nd year PhD student in Physics and Astronomy, talks about the effort that goes into finding these gravitational waves, which would provide a new and transformative window into the universe, and make it possible to see invisible objects such as black holes and cosmic strings.
Interview conducted by Marion Benkaiouche and Al Shaibani
Q. How did you get into Physics and Astronomy?
A. It’s hard to describe; I was always curious enough as a kid. I was never a natural at science, math or physics. Thinking back to math in high school, I always did trigonometry and then I had an awakening with calculus. I was always fascinated with space and stars and planets and galaxies and the idea of something else out there, something to be discovered. I really like working hard and find the subjects interesting. I was being the oddball in the family and I really like the challenge of trying to figure things out.
Q. How do you reconcile the gap between wonder and the more tangible science?
A. I remember looking at the moon and thinking “that’s awesome!” and one day, when I figured out how it really works, I thought, ” well, that sucks!” And that was I acting out at the difficulty of the subject. I was into math and got better and better. I love physics because it’s math applied to real life situations, I think of it as predicting the future with equations that will tell you when and where things will be at a future time. I like the idea of progress and being able to contribute to that progress.
Q. When you look at the sky now in that first glance, do you look at it differently now compared to your 8-year-old self? Is that emotion still there?
A. Yeah it is. It had gone away but now it has come back. A couple of years ago, I went camping in Harrison and I remembered the first time I saw the galaxy with my own eyes. People used to think that’s just a streak in the sky but actually, it’s all stars confined in the plane of the galaxy. Once you look at the star and you think that we are orbiting a star, which offsets other questions and philosophical ideas.
There’s that sense of seeing all these things, but knowing there is so much more that we cannot see; it reaffirms that desire to study these things and how progressive the field is.
Q. Are you into science fiction at all?
A. No? I don’t dislike it. I went to a conference in May where there was a heated argument about which Star Trek was better, and I hadn’t seen either. Creativity is a big thing for me; I’m a big fan of music. I like the idea of science fiction but with the whole galaxy out there, you can get into so many stories and science fiction is something I haven’t really gotten into. I remember the old school version of War of the Worlds (the black and white version) and watching it as a kid and absolutely loving it! I remember reading the biography of Einstein (I’m in no way comparing myself to him) but he attributed his abilities in physics to a slow development and taking the time to appreciate it even more. One day, I might read science fiction.
Q. How’s your knowledge of constellations?
A. I went to Penn State University for my undergrad and that’s the first time I got involved in giving talks. Back then I gave talks at the planetarium and my knowledge of the constellations was really good. I used to be really into Greek mythology and in my 4th grade, my teacher used to read a story to us each week. I like how historical the constellations are. You can use one of the constellations to find north and the stories behind them are really fascinating.
Q. What kind of music do you like?
A. Music has always been a part of my life: I started with the clarinet and then switched to the saxophone. I played a vibraphone and I play the guitar. I like finding new music and collecting albums. I live on Main Street now and there’s this really cool record store where I can get records for a $1 or 2!
Q. Any Parting words?
A. Science is not only about doing the research, but also about communicating that research. It is not only a sense of awareness but having people say “Hey I have an idea for that,” and letting the natural process take place.
Be sure to check out Emmanuel’s talk at the TEDx Terry Talks on November 2nd, at the Life Sciences Institute, UBC. For ticket information, please visit: http://bit.ly/1aioyd0